Ho­tels beef up fit­ness fa­cil­i­ties

Big­ger, more-mod­ern gyms let guests main­tain their at-home rou­tine

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS

Af­ter years of ne­glect, ho­tel fit­ness cen­ters are fi­nally get­ting into shape.

In the be­fore pic­ture, we see a wimpy gym housed in a claus­tro­pho­bic, over­heated room sparsely fur­nished with a garage sale as­sort­ment of equip­ment. With rust­ing parts and zero ven­ti­la­tion, the fa­cil­ity could be ruled a health risk. But the dawn­ing of the age of health con­scious­ness has sparked an evo­lu­tion of fit­ness cen­ters, send­ing sub­par gyms the way of the bed­side ash­tray.

“I’ve seen a huge change,” said Denise Austin, an es­tab­lished fit­ness ex­pert who fre­quently finds her­self work­ing out in ho­tels. “ Years ago, there was a small room that you opened with a card key. It would have a lit­tle tread­mill, a few tiny weights, maybe a mat. And there would be one man in there. It was creepy. But now ho­tels are try­ing to make it a pri­or­ity. They are build­ing full-ser­vice fit­ness cen­ters with spas and pools.”

To­day’s fit­ness rooms are pumped up on adren­a­line, repli­cat­ing guests’ home­town gyms with highly ad­vanced car­dio and strength-train­ing ma­chines, sep­a­rate ar­eas for yoga and stretch­ing, and classes for mus­cle and mind. Some ho­tels have even de­vised ser­vices to ad­dress the unique chal­lenges fac­ing fit­ness-minded trav­el­ers, such as re­mem­ber­ing to bring their sneak­ers. But mainly, the up­graded fa­cil­i­ties ad­vance a cen­tral goal: to help guests com­fort­ably main­tain their rou­tine away from home, thus avoid­ing bring­ing home ex­tra pounds of bag­gage.

“Over the course of 20 years, fit­ness cen­ters have gone from op­tional to re­quired,” said John Sarver, di­rec­tor of de­sign and devel­op­ment at Ho­tel Fit­ness Club, which cre­ates ho­tel fit­ness cen­ters and prod­ucts. “ The rooms weren’t match­ing what con­sumers wanted.”

Through sur­veys and stud­ies, the in­dus­try has learned that trav­el­ers place a high pri­or­ity on fit­ness cen­ters and may pass on a prop­erty if it lacks one. Sarver says the pres­ence or avail­abil­ity of a gym is one of the top three fac­tors in­flu­enc­ing book­ing de­ci­sions, af­ter lo­ca­tion and price, and is among the most

de­sired ameni­ties.

An April study con­ducted by D.K. Shif­flet & As­so­ci­ates, a travel re­search and con­sult­ing firm, re­veals the im­por­tance of ex­er­cise fa­cil­i­ties: More than 25 per­cent of 405 busi­ness trav­el­ers said they would book a ho­tel if it of­fered a 24-hour fit­ness cen­ter. They won’t have to look far: In the Amer­i­can Ho­tel & Lodg­ing As­so­ci­a­tion’s 2010 Lodg­ing Sur­vey of 8,500 U.S. prop­er­ties, 83 per­cent said that they have an ex­er­cise room/health/fit­ness fa­cil­ity, up from 79 per­cent in 2008, 75 per­cent in 2006 and 63 per­cent in 2004.

“For me, the gym is key. It’s more im­por­tant than the room,” said Mark Holt, a Port­land, Ore., guest who was us­ing the gym at the Sher­a­ton New York last month. “I go on­line, look at pic­tures and get an idea of what they have.”

These days, it’s eas­ier to find a gym that matches your ex­er­cise goals. Many of the ma­jor chains are el­e­vat­ing their fa­cil­i­ties while also stan­dard­iz­ing them from prop­erty to prop­erty. Guests will find the same qual­ity of equip­ment and pro­grams no mat­ter the Zip code. For ex­am­ple, in Oc­to­ber, Sher­a­ton rolled out its Sher­a­ton Fit­ness Pro­gram by Core Per­for­mance in 100 ho­tels, with the goal of out­fit­ting all its prop­er­ties by year’s end.

“It’s a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach,” said Craig Fried­man, di­rec­tor of the Per­for­mance In­no­va­tion Team of Core Per­for­mance, which helped cre­ate the Sher­a­ton pro­gram, “ that helps guests feel like they have the same tools on the road that they do at home.”

The multi-pronged course, part of the com­pany’s $6 bil­lion over­haul, com­pletely reimag­ines the chain’s ap­proach to fit­ness. Among its ren­o­va­tions and in­no­va­tions: up­grad­ing the equip­ment; re­vamp­ing the in­te­rior de­sign of the fit­ness cen­ters (the Sher­a­ton New York, for ex­am­ple, fea­tures newl­i­noleum floors that im­i­tate blond wood); pro­vid­ing guests with sam­ple work­outs based on time and needs, avail­able on its Web site ( www.sher­a­ton­fit­ness.com) and in the gym; and stock­ing the front desk with gyms-in-a-bag for in-room ses­sions, com­plete with a half-hour fit­ness video.

For guests who tend to pack light or ab­sent-mind­edly (a.k.a. leav­ing one sneaker un­der the bed at home), the Westin, like Sher­a­ton a Star­wood prop­erty, has part­nered with New Bal­ance to cre­ate a free loaner pro­gram. (Fair­mont has a sim­i­lar ar­range­ment with Adi­das, avail­able to its fre­quent-stay mem­bers.) Last year, 10 ho­tels started pro­vid­ing guests with a locker room’s pile of ap­parel, such as run­ning shoes with dis­pos­able in­soles, shorts, shirts, socks, capri pants and sports bras. De­spite the vis­ceral ick re­sponse (sports bra swap­ping?), the ho­tel has re­ceived en­cour­ag­ing feed­back from guests who slipped on the com­mu­nal togs.

In a fall sur­vey, 60 per­cent of in­di­vid­u­als who bor­rowed gear at the Westin Bos­ton Water­front and theWestinMichi­gan Av­enue in Chicago said they worked out be­cause of the pro­gram. In ad­di­tion, 87 per­cent said they were more likely to stay at a Westin be­cause of the perk.

“One of the chal­lenges with travel is pack­ing gear for ex­er­cise,” wrote one ho­tel guest in the poll. “Wish this was avail­able at more lo­ca­tions.” ( Your wish will come true by the end of 2011, when all prop­er­ties will of­fer the ser­vice.)

Among the 65 re­spon­dents, the study found that 51 per­cent bor­rowed shoes; 46 per­cent a shirt; 40 per­cent socks; 35 per­cent shorts; and 9 per­cent a “ tonic crop” (sports bra in nonNew Bal­ance lingo).

“Ev­ery­one’s look­ing for an edge,” Sarver said.

One of the lat­est trends is pair­ing fit­ness cen­ters with fullser­vice, pam­per-me spas. Due to the lay­out, guests must walk by the mas­sage rooms and coun­ters brim­ming with prod­ucts to reach the car­dio ma­chines and weights, a temp­ta­tion as strong as a slice of red vel­vet cake. At the Grand Hy­att DFW in Dal­las, for in­stance, the top-floor 24-hour gym is con­nected to the spa. Even with­out an ap­point­ment, guests can de­com­press in the siz­able steam room af­ter an in­tense ses­sion in­volv­ing tread­mills or el­lip­ti­cals, new cir­cuit ma­chines or a com­plete set of free weights. (If that’s not enough, en­ter the squats zone, with mats, or use the foam roller, body bars and stretch ca­bles.)

The Grand Hy­att’s pro­gram also il­lus­trates an­other bur­geon­ing trend: com­bin­ing forces with es­tab­lished fit­ness com­pa­nies and ex­perts. With the new Stay Fit@24/7 Hy­att gyms, avail­able at prop­er­ties in North Amer­ica and the Caribbean, Gun­nar Peter­son, trainer to hot celebri­ties, shares fit­ness tips that we can only hope Kim Kar­dashian fol­lows, too: “If you only have 30 min­utes,” he says in his on­line sug­ges­tions, “ try this mini-rou­tine: start with the Life Fit­ness chest press, fol­lowed by the Life Fit­ness leg press, fol­lowed by crunches on a sta­bil­ity ball. Re­peat that se­quence three to five times. With your re­main­ing time, do the el­lip­ti­cal cross-trainer.” Re­peat and watch your B-list body be­come an A.

Gan­sevoort Mi­ami Beach bran­dishes the David Barton name in its fit­ness cen­ter, which shares the same ad­dress. For $16 a day, guests can per­spire with the beau­ti­ful stick peo­ple in a 42,000-square-foot space with ocean views and a live sound­track by in­ter­na­tional DJs.

“ The top brands are re­ally mak­ing great strides in ex­pand­ing their fit­ness pro­grams,” said Jim Kaese, co-founder of the Ath­letic-Minded Trav­eler, an on­line travel and fit­ness Web site that in­cludes re­views of ho­tel gyms. “ The smaller ho­tels are fol­low­ing suit.”

Com­pared with higher-pro­file chains, in­de­pen­dent inns, be­dand-break­fasts and other al­ter­na­tive lodg­ings are at a slight dis­ad­van­tage. With smaller bud­gets and fewer guests, these prop­er­ties typ­i­cally ap­proach their fit­ness ameni­ties more con­ser­va­tively. In other words, you won’t find a fit­ness concierge join­ing you for a break­fast of frit­tata and broiled grape­fruit. How­ever, the lit­tle guys aren’t aban­don­ing their ex­er­cise-minded guests, ei­ther.

If a ho­tel doesn’t have the real es­tate to build an on-site fit­ness cen­ter, it may forge an agree­ment with a lo­cal gym that al­lows guests day us­age. For ex­am­ple, the Auburn Trav­elodge Inn and Suites in Washington state of­fers a free pass to the lo­cal Bally, and guests at the Eger­ton House Ho­tel in London gain free ac­cess to the LA Fit­ness South Kens­ing­ton, five min­utes away by foot. Even some ho­tels with fit­ness cen­ters pro­vide trav­el­ers with the op­tion of a more ro­bust fa­cil­ity: The Hol­i­day Inn Hal­i­fax Har­bourview in Nova Sco­tia comes with a small fit­ness room with a few car­dio ma­chines and weights, but for an Iron­man work­out, guests can mus­cle up at the Dart­mouth Sport­splex across the street.

The ad­van­tage of the part­ner­ship: Guests have at their dis­pos­fit­ness

al a full-ser­vice fa­cil­ity that is part play­ground, with aquat­ics, rac­quet­ball courts, saunas and more. The con: the in­con­ve­nience fac­tor.

“ There’s noth­ing I hate more than work­ing out, then hav­ing to ride the sub­way back to the ho­tel sweaty,” said Kurt Broad­hag, pres­i­dent of K Al­lan Con­sult­ing, which ad­vises lodg­ings on gym lay­out and devel­op­ment. “It’s so nice to hop on the el­e­va­tor, work out, then go back to the room to re­lax.”

Kaese, how­ever, has no­ticed a de­cline in ho­tel-gym mar­riages, as the prop­er­ties turn their at­ten­tion in­ward. “Part­ner­ships with nearby gyms is de­creas­ing,” he said, “ be­cause a lot of ho­tels are end­ing up ren­o­vat­ing their own fit­ness cen­ters. . . . Ho­tels are blow­ing out walls and el­e­vat­ing the whole fit­ness ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Sarver, the gym de­signer, said prop­er­ties are grow­ing their fit­ness rooms from 300 square feet to 400 to 800 square feet. “Rooms are big­ger in the econ­omy, mid-tier sec­tor,” he added.

With more space, you need more equip­ment, and ho­tels are in­vest­ing in the most tech­ni­cally ad­vanced ma­chines on the mar­ket. The car­dio ma­chines, for in­stance, come with per­sonal view­ing screens that al­low guests to se­lect from a va­ri­ety of ex­er­cise rou­tines and/or zone out with their fa­vorite soap opera or sports team.

“ The change now is technology,” Sarver said. “It’s about the con­sole with space for an iPod and other en­ter­tain­ment fea­tures. It will go be­yond TVs to touch screens and an in­ter­face that syncs with your phone. You may be able to step on the tread­mill, put in your name and pass­word, and track your progress no mat­ter where you are stay­ing.”

Ho­tels also rec­og­nize that not ev­ery­one has the knees for run­ning and that some peo­ple want a kinder rou­tine. They are adding lower-im­pact el­lip­ti­cal ma­chines and re­cum­bent bikes and cre­at­ing dis­tinct ar­eas for strength train­ing with re­sis­tance bands and sta­bil­ity balls, stretch­ing and core train­ing for ab­dom­i­nals and lower back.

De­spite the grow­ing trend in ho­tel fit­ness cen­ters, we are still find­ing tiny rooms with tread­mills that, with a wrong step, could land you out the win­dow. Like ho­tels, fit­ness cen­ters have their quirks. For trav­el­ers who ask about the fit­ness cen­ter be­fore they ask about the room rate, Kaese has cre­ated a data­base of ho­tel gyms, in­clud­ing quippy re­views. Of the RitzCarl­ton Bos­ton Com­mon, the site says: “One of the best stay and sweat op­tions in the en­tire U.S. and cer­tainly Bos­ton’s best ho­tel gym.”

Look­ing at the re­views, one re­al­izes that while ho­tels have made some im­pres­sive progress, they are still miles from the fin­ish line.

Case in point, the Grand Hy­att in San Fran­cisco’s Union Square: “A few good ma­chines in­side the ho­tel gym, but cer­tainly have seen bet­ter Hy­att Stay­Fit work­out ex­pe­ri­ences.”

“It isn’t as fast as we’d like,” said Fried­man of the ad­vance­ments. “But it’s com­ing.”

This could be the ho­tel in­dus­try’s New Year’s res­o­lu­tion.

ROGER CHOUINARD FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

AN­DREA SACHS/THE WASHINGTON POST

The Sher­a­ton New York’s gym is full of high-tech equip­ment.

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